The discouraging, damaging lie of “working out a muscle” of “spiritual discipline”

drinking water man thirsty life sustenance spiritual analogy image

I’m not looking to pick a fight, but I will fight on this if I must. I believe the ideology, and more aptly put, theology, of needing to “work out a muscle” of a so-called “spiritual discipline” is a very destructive thing to believe or to teach people.

What do I mean by this?

If you’ve been a Christian very long, you’ve heard this taught. Quite possibly, you’ve taught this yourself. I have. I used to teach this erroneous ideology quite often because in my very limited thinking and understanding, and because I had been taught this and only this way of thinking, it was the only way I knew to say how to grow spiritually.

Here’s a recent example I was just told by some church leaders teaching a room of us about prayer and trying to motivate us to pray more fervently:

“Prayer is a muscle. You have to work it out so it becomes stronger and honestly for most of us this muscle is pretty weak. So we’re expecting of you to…” and so on, which is followed by the expected daily rituals, er, schedules, of “working out your prayer muscle” to make it stronger.

I hate it in part because on the surface it seems so “right” and unarguable. When we compare a so-called “spiritual discipline”, something we want to do to at some seemingly higher level of enlightenment, to a physical muscle, and assume these to be similar in comparison, then it just makes sense to “work out” and “get our reps in”, right? That’s how things grow, right? Work it!

Well, no. That’s how muscles grow.

You can even, kinda-sorta-mostly, say it’s how skills grow.

But, why would we assume a spiritual longing such as prayer is at all like a “muscle” or even a “skill”?

Wouldn’t it be more likely compared to, well, what it is — a longing!? A need!? A pleasure!? When was the last time you said, “Ya know, I need water to survive as part of my design; so I’m going to work-out needing water so that I’ll need it more and get better at drinking it more!”

That’d seem, well, just plain weird and unnecessary at best but kinda insane at worst.

So let’s break down the error here.

Here’s how muscle-building works: Strain something and slightly tear its fibers and stress its cells. Then repeat this often enough that the muscle begins to send signals to your body to say, “Hey we need to make this task easier so that I don’t die or continually over exert myself like this. Therefore, let’s dedicate resources to bulk up these cells and fibers that must continually perform these actions.” Then, you have to have the resources on hand to provide that muscle the building blocks for what it needs. As in, you have to eat both the right amounts of proteins and sugars to bulk up that muscle. Then, you rest it so it can strengthen and build up its cellular makeup that has been strained. This is, remember, all so that, in the end, you can achieve making the continual workload easier. It’s a literal exercise of “stress it, feed it, rest it, all so we can relieve it.”

That’s how muscle building works. That’s what muscle building is for!

So, again, try to compare this to our literal need for God by design, and you can see where this falls apart. You can also see how this gets so easily confused and taught so often too though.

The problem is that to make this analogy work, the person teaching it must royally mix up their logic and cross their comparisons inconsistently to try to fashion this into a proper analogy.

“We have a continual and large need for God; that’s our ‘workload’ that puts a ‘strain’ on our ‘muscles’ of prayer!”

No! God is our sustenance that supplies us! Abiding in God doesn’t strain us, it revitalizes us!

“Oh yea, of course, I was going to use him for that too. So, maybe I meant that he’s the sustenance that gives the energy and bulks us up, prayer is the ‘muscle’ still, and the ‘workload’ that strains me is praying! Yea, that’s it!”

This is closer to accurately depicting what you’re assuming, and it sounds so right, doesn’t it? But there are fine lines of deceit here!

Let’s be real about what the ‘muscle’ actually is here. The comparative, figurative ‘muscle’ here is being assumed to be the act of prayer, but the act of prayer isn’t an entity of itself like a muscle is. The only entity here is you! You and me. We are the ‘muscle’.

So if you are to be super crystal-clear about the only way your analogy could even come close to right, it’d be to say something like, “I am the muscle, the act of prayer is the workload that strains me.”

The ‘workload’ in your analogy is, yes, the act of praying, and this praying is what ‘strains’ you. But, let’s be real about what that is saying. The most honest way to put it would be, “I don’t enjoy abiding in God and talking to him, for whatever reason, and so I’m trying to make myself enjoy it more by just gritting my teeth and doing it. Then maybe I’ll do it long enough that I’ll suddenly like it.”

It is important to be honest and sober about these things we’re comparing because it then becomes a lot harder to reconcile the notion that you, the muscle itself, can feed yourself some God-resources that you don’t enjoy and grow yourself stronger so as to more easily feed yourself God-resources that you don’t enjoy. It all falls apart.

My bicep cannot feed itself a steak and honey, which it doesn’t like, so that it can more easily feed itself steak and honey that it doesn’t like tomorrow.

That, when you boil it down, is your analogy!

It all falls apart! The tiniest slivers of comparison that could make it worth anything don’t even come close to the gigantic contrasts that make it a horrible and erroneous analogy.

Why is this worth so much deliberation? Is it really that big of a deal?

Doesn’t this analogy prove helpful to some people in what is a “good desire” of wanting to pray more or “grow” more of whatever spiritual act they’re endeavoring to do.

I would say it’s an extremely big deal because, in fact, no, it doesn’t help anyone, it actually harms.

Again, if we return to the better analogy — which I happened to steal from Jesus, I might add (John 4:13-14) — of our need for God being more like a need for water, we can see the destructive nature of getting this wrong.

If I am not longing for water, how would I know this? I must see that others have a much stronger longing for water; a more regular partaking of water; a more vibrant pleasure with water.

I must then ask myself, “Why do I not have the same longings and pleasures?” I could possibly conclude that I simply don’t need as much water as them; I am somehow different by design. Perhaps… but no.

So I could only then conclude that I must be receiving my necessary quenching of my thirst from an alternate source! I’d be forced to examine my life and determine that, perhaps, I’m actually drinking a lot of soda! I may also find I am consuming things that numb my senses to that fact that I’m terribly dehydrated and malnourished. I may even see that I’m actually sitting very still and not utilizing much water and therefore never developing a strong enough need that soda can’t momentarily quench it on regular days!

I would, most certainly though, not conclude that I should continue to do things as I am doing them, partaking of soda and other beverages, numbing my senses, and then still somehow set a reminder to force a ritual of drinking undesired water so that I will then perhaps desire it (the likeness of “working out your muscle of discipline”).

That conclusion only comes about because either (A) I misunderstand what the actual problem and, thus, solution, is or (B) I only want to appear to be enjoying water like others for the sake of my image (although this also is a form of misunderstanding what the actual problem is).

Either way, the consequences of concluding this regiment or forcing water into you to be your solution will certainly not make you enjoy water, but rather, despise it. Its only outcome will be that of discouragement, destruction, and, with enough abuse, forming a resentment towards water for all of the discomfort and discouragement it brings you — a despisement for how it constantly reveals how little you actually desire it. It’s a vicious and discouraging cycle guaranteed to leave you feeling guilty, despairing, and ultimately failed and frustrated.

 

The reality of the situation is that very little of your endeavor would actually have to do with God, himself. Your teaching on this matter is all about you and only you, despite that you might say its end goal is about God and others.

At the risk of sounding ridiculously obvious and simple, I want to explain how to desire water:

  1. Understand what you are by design and how you need water.
  2. Understand what water is and how it meets your need
  3. Be who you are made to be without partaking of things you aren’t made to partake of so that you will naturally long to consume water and enjoy its consumption!
  4. Consume water and see that it is satisfying and pleasurable and adequately sustaining for all we need!

So to again point out the obvious, this is only an analogy. And, like all analogies, it ultimately falls short as well. But the only way this falls short is that water is less important to our body’s existence than God’s Spirit is to our soul’s existence.

My body can and will decay and be destroyed, but my soul can not dare meet the same fate (which is an ongoing, eternal destruction)! The significance of my soul finding its satisfaction in the Living Water, himself, is of infinite more vitality than my body’s satisfaction with water.

It would be a horrible mistake to believe, and a horrible lie to teach, that “discipline” is a muscle that we can work out in order to enjoy God more.

“Discipline” is nothing more than an observed pattern of motivated pleasure. In and of itself, it doesn’t even exist. Motivation gives the apparent effect of discipline, but not the other way around.

The only thing I could bear to be called a “muscle that needs worked out” in the Christian life would be our “faith”. Still, this is not discipline. This is simply consuming God and then, in motivation from overwhelming satisfaction, doing something with that energy. This action will then, in turn, “strengthen” our faith as we see God to be sufficient for all we do with him. We will then do more and more with our faith — including things commonly called “spiritual disciplines” such as prayer.

It is still God who gives us the faith, grows our faith, and sustains our faith, and yet we do know from God’s word that we have a responsibility to use and grow our faith as well so as to not let it stay weak and incapable.

Thus “faith” would be the only “muscle” to be strengthened I could ever imagine in a Christian’s life. But to be sure, the pattern we would call “discipline” would be nothing more than a result of joy and faith that we will receive more joy with action. And, everything else that would make this person seem super spiritual, joyous, loving, caring, kind, patient, peaceful, humble, disciplined in spiritual behaviors, and intimate with Lord, would be nothing more than the effects of being continually filled and delightfully satisfied with abundant, life-giving Living Water that makes everything else seem like foolishness and waste.

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
(John 4:13-14)

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